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Is gluten-free good for all?

In 2007, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, co-host of "The View," revealed to her co-hosts and audience that she suffered from Celiac disease, a chronic, genetic, auto-immune condition that can damage the lining of the small intestine if not properly managed.

When a person with Celiac disease eats gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats, it damages the intestine, which prevents the absorption of necessary nutrients. That’s why a gluten-free diet is essential to the long term health of someone who has Celiac disease, which affects 1 out of 133 Americans. And it can show up at any age.

Two years later Hasselbeck came out with her own cookbook, The G Free Diet, A Gluten-Free Survival Guide. In it, she writes,"Even people with no health issues have a great deal to gain by giving up gluten," as she promotes the benefits of a gluten-free diet for managing autism and weight, controlling irritable bowel syndrome, counteracting AD/HD, boosting energy levels, improving attention span, and speeding digestion.

But contrary to Hasselbeck’s claims, research has not shown that a gluten-free diet provides any health benefits for the rest of the population. According to Virtua registered dietitian Barbara Darcy-Castorina, RD, CDE, “Gluten gives baked goods elasticity and shape, and provides thickeners in foods like ketchup and sauces. Within the last five years, hundreds of gluten-free products have arrived in the supermarket, but they’re not necessarily healthy or good for all of us.”

Darcy-Castorina explains: “People think that they will lose weight on a gluten-free diet, but, in fact, many gluten-free foods are higher in fat and sugar to compensate for the lack of gluten in the product. So the reality is that people without Celiac may be using foods made with alternative flours, which have a lot of calories and less fiber, and they will not lose weight.  

According to the National Institute of Health, simply removing gluten from your diet doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be healthier. In fact, it’s more likely that you will miss out on important nutrients by removing healthy grains that contain gluten, since 95% of processed foods contain some wheat grain. 

The silver lining in all of the hype surrounding gluten-free diets: people are paying more attention to labels and using less processed foods, which ultimately can lead to a healthier way of eating. Some people are experimenting with healthy alternatives to wheat products such as quinoa, brown rice, corn products, and legumes to provide the starch part of their meal. And that’s something everyone can benefit from!



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